I met with hundreds of college-bound students and their families as an admission counselor.
One thing I always noticed about second-timers: Easier conversations.
When parents had a second child going off to the same college (we had an unprecedented number of sibling pairs at our college), conversations sometimes went like this:
Me: “Did you get a good look at the residence halls?”
Student: “I stayed with my sister in her residence hall 34 times last year. We made a Jell-O tower the last time I stayed.”
Me: “A Jell-O tower?”
Student: “Yep, that’s why she had to scrub the lounge. You know, because the whole thing exploded from the vinegar.”
Parent: Rolls eyes. “Let me get you a check for the deposit. Let me see, if I remember correctly, that’s $200, right?”
Me, still with a million questions about the residence hall lounge Jell-O/vinegar volcano, checking the time: “Do you guys have any questions? You’ve only been here for 15 minutes.”
Student: “No, I’m good.”
(I know, this conversation was borderline ridiculous.)
At any rate, when you’re going through the college search for the first time, it’s daunting. It’s like looking into the end of one of those pool noodles (you can’t quite see the light at the end). You may worry, have a million questions, convinced you’re not sure what you’re doing when your first child heads off to college.
Here’s what you can do to lighten your mental load.
Your child might think you’re there to slloooowly give her signs of a stroke when you’re on college visits. You pester the admission counselor, the dean of admission, the professors, the security personnel. You make best friends with Clara, the cleaning professional in the all-female residence hall and vow to get in on the jazz professor’s next gig — as the drummer.
You’re just doing your job as the first-time parent. If you have another child, you’ll barely utter a peep the second time around.
Your second-born will say, “Mom, the admission counselor just asked if you have any questions. Can you take your sunglasses off and uh… look like you’re into this?”
You know you need to visit campuses, but where should you go and when? A lot depends on your student. Some sophomores are nowhere near ready to visit colleges and others are. It depends on maturity level, drive, etc. Gauge your student’s readiness. Even if you’re ready for a full tour of New England colleges, your child may not give a toot. At all.
Trust me — I’ve seen the kids who aren’t ready for college visits! They act just like you imagine they would.
Once you figure out when, you need to determine where. “Where?” is a fun — and stressful — question because you have so many choices. Big? Small? Four years? Trade school? Parents’ alma mater? In state? Out of state?
You don’t know until you start visiting. There are no rules here. Just pick a school your child’s interested in and go. Simple as that.
3. Meet the people.
Really get to know the people. Not just the students. Not just the admission staff. Everyone. While there’s no way you can meet all 10,000 people on campus, you should be able to get a feel of what the campus means to the people you do meet. Try to get people to say, “I wish campus offered X…” or “I love X about our campus.”
Find out whether students love the things that matter — the relationships they develop or the opportunities they’ve been given. If all they can talk about are the beautiful buildings, the rad parties they attend or other surface-level stuff, it might be a red flag.
4. Get organized.
You may have no idea what you need to organize when you’ve got your first child going to college. Here’s a spreadsheet I put together — without the fluff you don’t need to know.
You can copy that spreadsheet and save it for yourself. It’s definitely nothing fancy but is super functional. It includes things like distance from home, tuition and fees and heart/gut test (feelings after the visit). Encourage your child to maintain this sheet.
5. Activate the heart/gut test after every visit.
As I alluded to in the previous point, you need to make sure your child “takes” the heart/gut test. The heart/gut test is not really actually a straightforward test. It’s actually a litmus test for how your child “feels” about the college search. You can ask a few questions to probe a little bit for how your child feels about a college. Ask:
How did you feel when you were on campus?
Can you see yourself going to college here?
How do you feel about the students/professors/admission staff, etc.?
What was your gut/heart initial reaction to this college?
As you can imagine, this is a little unnerving for some people. It takes out the facts — how many students get a job after graduation, successful alumni, internship stats — and puts feelings front and center.
But it’s so good when you get it right.
6. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk about money.
Talk about money until you get a scratchy throat. Of course you have lots of questions about money. How much will each school cost? How much merit aid does a college offer? What scholarships can my child receive from searches? (By the way, check out the Scholarship System for the best way to look for scholarships that I’ve found anywhere!)
Here’s what you want to find out from every college your child’s interested in:
The amount of merit aid he or she will receive from that college.
Whether your child can apply for other scholarships.
Don’t forget to talk about how much you can reasonably afford to help your child pay for college. You don’t want your child to have unrealistic expectations about what you’ll be able to help pay. (Imagine that your child thinks you’ll pay for the whole thing — but you can’t. It might be a nasty shock when your student tallies up the loans for her first year alone!)
7. Avoid talking too much about major.
Here’s a quick fact: Three out of every four students enter college undecided or change their major at least once.
You may already know that. But that still might not stop you from searching the internet for “best colleges for pre-optometry” or “best pre-med universities.”
A true story about a past student of mine: Jessica began looking at colleges as a junior in high school. She knew she wanted to be a pre-med major. In fact, she was so determined to be a pediatrician that she even shadowed her own pediatrician. Jessica chose her college (in this case, a large state university) based on the university’s high percentage of undergraduates who got into medical school.
Guess what happened. Jessica started taking biology and chemistry classes and realized it wasn’t at all what she’d expected. In fact, she realized she didn’t even like the school she’d chosen at all. She ended up transferring and switched her major to marketing instead.
About three quarters of all college students change their major plans at least once. Your student will most likely change his major (because he either discovers something new or learns that he’s not well-suited for his initial choice). So don’t go into the search on a mission to find the best school for the best [insert major].
It’s easy to ask college reps, “Can I major in X at your school?”
It’s much more difficult to ask other, less-defined questions, like “What does it feel like to be a student on campus?” (See heart/gut test.)
8. Don’t spend too much time looking over your shoulder.
If your next-door neighbor already applied to 36 colleges and your child thinks he’s good with two college applications, don’t compare. What’s right for neighbor Billy Bob may not be right for your child at all.
If you’re struggling to file the FAFSA but your neighbor Mary filled it out in two seconds flat, relax. As long as you meet required deadlines for each college your child’s interested in, you’re doing great. And if you need help, get it.
9. Check college’s requirements — then follow the deadlines.
All the different requirements and deadlines at schools can slowly drive you crazy if you let it happen. One school may have a November 1 application deadline. Another school has a scholarship interview deadline in February. Grab my spreadsheet and make sure you clearly denote each deadline. Put your head down, get your child on board and meet the deadlines of all the colleges on your list. Make sure you ask about:
CSS Profile deadlines (usually only required at more competitive schools)
Testing requirements for the ACT and SAT (many schools don’t require them now) — and find out whether your child needs to do the written essays or the SAT subject tests
Deadlines and requirements for letters of recommendation
Deadlines for final transcripts
10. Follow up.
Make sure colleges get your child’s transcripts, test scores, recommendation letters and other requirements. It’s a good idea to make sure your child’s file is complete well before deadlines approach.
Don’t skip this step. There’s nothing worse than thinking everything’s ready to go, then realizing with horror that something didn’t get turned in on time.
Check a month before everything’s due if it’s feasible. That way, your child has plenty of time to submit transcripts or scramble for another recommendation if needed.
11. Consider revisiting.
Did your child not feel the heart/gut test magic the first time around? That’s normal.
Sometimes your child just needs a second visit, particularly if it’s been a year or more since your family made the trek to a particular college.
Keep going till your child can see himself going to a particular school and can envision success there as well.
12. Talk about your insecurities.
It’s okay to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. Isn’t it like that the first time you do something new, no matter what it is? Think about the first time you booted up the internet. The first time you drove a car. The first time you went off to college yourself. Learning about the college search is an involved process. Luckily, I’ve created a timeline and checklist that explains exactly what you’ll need to do at any step in the college search, called the Grab ‘n Go Timeline and Checklist for the College Search. Check it out!
First Child Going to College? You’ll Get There!
You really will get there. The entire process may feel as foreign as learning how to drive on snow when you’re from Florida (and maybe this will actually happen if your kid’s looking at colleges in, say, North Dakota!) but the good news is there’s no one way to complete the college search.
The former president of my alma mater and the college I worked for always told a story about his daughter’s overnight visit at his alma mater, the Air Force Academy. He dropped her off, glowing because he knew she knew what to look for in a college.
The daughter he picked up the next day, he always said in his speeches, “Was not the same daughter I’d dropped off.”
She was quiet on the car ride home. Toward the end, she burst out, “Dad, I don’t want to go to the Air Force Academy.”
Our former president always said his daughter aced the Heart/Gut Test. If she’d chosen to go to the Air Force Academy just to make her dad happy, she knew that it’d be a long, miserable four years.
Our former president truly believed that when you know deep down that it feels right, it is.
But. What about when you hear someone say this, or read quotes like this?
“You should never ignore your gut. But you should know when to rely on that gut instinct and when to safeguard against it.”
It’s harder to grasp a completely intuitive approach to the college decision. As humans, we want to make sure the decision is logical:
A pros and cons list.
Evidence of oodles of successful alumni.
Statistics and proof.
But the college decision doesn’t always come down to a pros and cons list.
Why’s finding the best fit so important? Let’s dive into a couple of scenarios to illustrate why.
Your kid does a diligent job of choosing a college. He carefully examines what he wants, visits collegesand scrutinizes every angle of the decision. Your son employs the heart test and gut test to his advantage.
He definitely chooses the best fit for him. Your son thrives! He gets involved in activities, picks a major that is quite possibly the best match that ever existed. He adds a few mentors to his list and finds best friends for life.
Your child happily graduates from said college and gets a great job and/or goes off to his No. 1 choice dental school (or whatever graduate school). Beautiful happy ending. You sob happily at alllll the graduations.
Your kid doesn’t really engage in the college search — you can’t get him to move off the couch.
He chooses a college. Not the best match in history, because it’s pretty expensive and that creates some angst. You’re paying a whopping amount because, due to his inability to get off the couch, he didn’t apply for scholarships.
He doesn’t really apply himself. But TBH, it actually ends up going okay. His grades? He manages to squeak through! Graduation? Ditto! He says, “I’m just not a school person, Mom.” He manages to gather tons of friends along the way.
He gets a great job after graduation and eventually becomes the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. You know, he’s one of those really successful people whose teachers said he would end up as a ditch digger. Like Walt Disney.
Truth be told, you’re just as surprised as all his poor professors. You should have known, looking back. As a kid, he showed up at Boy Scout Camp and ended up leading all the activities — not the Boy Scout leaders.
Your daughter (just to shake it up a little) adamantly decides to go to a college based on where her boyfriend’s gonna go. (I can’t tell you how much I despised reason as an admission counselor.)
She breaks up with said boyfriend and melts down in a puddle of existential crisis halfway through first semester. She’s six hours away, in a school that’s way too big (or way too small) or whatever. Needless to say, it’s not a Baby Bear fit. You encourage her to stick it out for at least another semester.
Your daughter transfers out after the first semester, anyway, vowing never to see Bad Brad the Boyfriend ever again. She loses credits due to her terrible grades and in all actuality, must start over. She’s back at square one.
She is actually unhappy at her second institution, too. She transfers again. Classes don’t transfer. By this point, she might as well still claim freshman status in college, even though she should have been at least a second-semester sophomore. Ugh. She graduates late, with more debt than she should have.
There are plenty more permutations than what I’ve covered above. And guess what? I knew a student that fit every one of these descriptions.
The process boils down to:
GUT TEST->HEART TEST->CHOOSING THE RIGHT SCHOOL->GREATER CHANCE OF GRADUATING ON TIME.
Now, did I say “greater chance of success in life” or “instant fame and fortune”?
No. Just “greater chance of graduating on time.”
Even so, that’s a big accomplishment.
Just remember, everything you can do to prepare for the heart test, gut test and ultimately, the college experience, will help your child attain the direct route to the best experience possible.
How to make sure that happens? Well, when everything strikes the right notes with your child, the diploma almost writes itself!
These things will help you accomplish all of this.
1. Visit the Campus.
Get geared up for your 16th masked campus visit: (“Yep, this is what we do now: Not breathe…”) or amp yourself up for your first non-breathing expedition.
Your kiddo can’t successfully ace the heart or gut test without stepping foot on campus.
2. Meet the People.
I know, this sounds so obvious. Duh — you want you kiddo to meet the people on campus. You meet the tour guide, right. Check.
But no, I mean really get to know the people. Ask them their whole life story. Ask them what they thought about their chosen profession as kindergarteners.
Don’t ask cursory questions like, “Do you eat every meal in the dining hall?”
Not only is that boring, it doesn’t get to the root, the heart, the real guts of the kid. Hey, the heart! The guts.
Katie effervesced. She was a tour guide on our campus and was so bubbly that I think she floated on bubbles. She was everyone’s friend and pretty much told her life story from the ground up to everyone — on every tour.
But the thing was, she wasn’t annoying. She was wonderful. Parents loved her. Every student wanted to be her friend. I think it’s because she was so real.
Encourage your student to talk to everyone in the real-est sense.
Not every tour guide can be a Katie, but seek out the Katies wherever you are on campus and whether that person’s your tour guide or not. It’s a win for all.
And don’t neglect the Katies who are librarians, admission counselors, professors, the list goes on! Talk to everyone.
My alma mater’s best ambassador works in the alumni and advancement office. She’s also the wife of one of our most popular biology professors. She’s effervesces, too.
Meet the people who effervesce.
3. Keep Semi-Quiet.
Shssshshh. Mom and dad. You’ve got to shhhhh.
Your child is trying to figure out his way.
Oh, gosh, I know I encouraged you to ask a billion questions on the college visit. But you must be quiet and kinda let your child come to you.
I’ve learned from experience that when parents try to push their opinions on their kids, it sometimes backfires. “I loved our visit at College ABC, didn’t you?” One parent says.
“I loathed College ABC. I hate its colors [or other ridiculous reason].” Says the kid.
Sometimes they might pick the school you love (yes, with the Katies!) if you don’t project too much.
Of course, this all depends on your kids’ personality.
On the other hand, if you’ve got a pretty compliant kid, you might get away with a little more effusiveness. Kids are hard, I know! Gah!
4. Talk About the Ol’ Rumbly Gut Feeling.
It’s okay to have an instinct that doesn’t make much sense. Encourage your kid to feel that. Talk about the Heart Test/Gut Test and make it a true part of the experience.
It’s kinda like picking your spouse or partner. Did you make pros and cons list as to whether you should marry him or her?
Nah, you went with your gut. Or at least, I hope you did.
Who says the college decision shouldn’t at least be somewhat about that, too?
Listen to the Heart/Gut
Now, I hear ya. You’re asking, “What if my kid doesn’t feel the effervescence? The falling in love? The ‘Yep, this is where I’m supposed to go?’”
As hard as it is to hear, your search might not be over. Or maybe you need to start a new search now that you know what to look for in a college.
The FAFSA opened on October 1 and now’s the time to fill it out.
The FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Colleges and universities use the FAFSA to consider your child for federal student aid. States and individual colleges and universities also use the FAFSA to award grants, scholarships and loans.
File the FAFSA as soon as possible — for federal aid, you must submit the FAFSA by 11:59 p.m. Central time (CT) on June 30, 2022.
Does that mean you get to veg out till June 29?
Because colleges also carry deadlines. Check with the college(s) your child’s interested in attending to understand their exact application deadlines.
2. Encourage your child to work on applications in advance — not at the last minute.
Most colleges evaluate regular applications between January through March. However, you’ll unearth a few different deadlines for specific admission types.
For example, early action and early decision applications require students to submit their materials well before the new year. Application deadlines show up during the — you guessed it — fall months! You might see a few mid-October through November deadlines at colleges that have an early action or early decision process.
Check — and double check — the admission deadlines for each college your child plans to apply. Even if the college uses rolling admission, it’s best to apply early so you know where your child stands in terms of merit-based scholarships and other financial aid early on.
3. Check out various other deadlines for specific colleges.
Your high schooler may not be done with just an application. You may uncover a few other dates to keep track of:
Additional deadlines for honors programs
More applications or deadlines for scholarships and financial aid
How to keep track of it all? Create an online calendar or spreadsheet to plan campus visits so you don’t — gasp! — miss key application dates for scholarships or financial aid.
4. Note ACT/SAT Adjustments
Does your student plan to take the ACT or SAT? Do a quick study on the latest testing information. Will the test be offered where your child normally planned to take it? What are the COVID-19 requirements?
If testing is not available in your area or you don’t meet the safety requirements, know that many schools have gone test optional.
Note: Even if your child’s a senior, it’s not too late to take one of these tests.
5. Start Narrowing Your College List
Your child can only go to one school, right? Time to start narrowing the list! Ask your child a few questions to get closer to a decision:
Do you want or need to be closer to home? (Colleges close by may not have popped up on your kiddo’s radar before!)
Do you think you prefer a small liberal arts college or a large university?
Would you prefer a large city, suburban area, rural community, etc.?
Do you think you want community college first?
Are you interested in going to a school that’s currently all online?
Are you comfortable with some loans?
How hard do you want to work for scholarships if schools don’t offer much merit-based aid?
What do you think you might major in during college?
What types of extracurricular activities would you like to participate in?
Next, divide schools into “safety,” “match” and “reach” schools based on the admission criteria at each school:
Safety: A safety school means that based on a school’s admission criteria, it’s likely that your child’s academic credentials are way above the average incoming freshman range. A lot of people call this school a “back-up.” It’s a good idea to make sure your child can proudly say, “I’m okay with attending my safety school” — just in case.
Match: A match school is one that your child is likely to get into based on a particular school’s admission criteria. Your child is likely to be admitted because his or her academic credentials are well within the average incoming freshman’s range. In other words, it’s more likely that your child will attend this school.
Reach: A reach school is not a guaranteed shoo-in. Encourage your child to choose a school that’s not a complete pipe dream (your child can’t apply to Harvard with a 2.5 grade point average, for example).
Feel like you’re constantly bombarding your child with questions and all you get in return is “I don’t know!” or something along those lines? Remember, your child may not know the answer to some of these questions — this may be the first huge decision he’s ever made.
Elicit help from a guidance counselor, admission counselor or another individual you trust to help guide him through this experience.
6. Start Applying for Outside Scholarships
Outside scholarships include private scholarships and cash awards. Encourage your child to go for those $100 scholarships — they add up.
Go to area high schools and collect programs dating back up to four years ago. You can find the names of scholarships on that list, Google them and then BAM! Your kid’s got lots of local scholarships at her disposal.
Contact various civic organizations in town, like the Elks club or Kiwanis club. They usually give away lots of scholarships.
What types of scholarships does your company offer? Do other family members work for companies that offer scholarships as well?
Ask your child about scholarship announcements at school. Ask for an email copy of these announcements, if possible, or ask where you can find them online.
Check social media. Join Facebook groups or other social media groups that post scholarships. All it takes is a simple search!
Look at scholarship search engines. Google “scholarships for writers,” for example. Use keywords to your advantage!
If your child doesn’t look like a match for a specific scholarship, reach out to the scholarship committee and ask if your child can apply anyway. Maybe he’s just missing one tiny requirement.
I urge you to check out Scholarship System’s free webinar. Jocelyn of the Scholarship System is amazing — she’s turned getting scholarships into a complete system. She knows how to streamline the process so your child gets scholarship results.
7. Attend Virtual College Fairs
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, NACAC has canceled all Fall 2020 in-person fairs and pivoted to virtual programming. Find out details about 2020 Fall Virtual College Fairs. If you’re wondering how to look for colleges, this is a great place to start because your child can learn a lot about colleges from all over the U.S. from a comfy, squashy chair!
Talk over the type of visit your child wants. Talk to your child before you jump on the phone or set up a campus visit. What does your child want to get out of the visit? Does she want to meet with a faculty member or does that idea terrify her? Does she want what I call the “drive-by” experience — just tour and admission counselor?
Call the admission office of a college or university. I heavily suggest calling the campus visit coordinator at that college or university instead of signing up online. It’s always better to talk to a live person. A computer can’t hear you talking about your child’s interest in biology, but a campus visit coordinator can — and can offer a one-on-one meeting with a biology major or professor.
Understand your visit options. What are the options? Let’s say you want to visit on a specific date. Maybe the admission office isn’t doing personal campus visits that day — maybe there’s a group campus visit day.
Consider a personal campus visit. This is my very favorite type of visit option! I love personal campus visits because they allow you and your child to do a visit that fits your child’s exact interests. It’s personalized! You can visit with anyone in the college you need to (professor, coach, student, etc.)
Visit in person. I know it’s tempting to do a Zoom visit, but while Zoom is wonderful, it can’t take the place of an in-person visit.
Above All Else — Check In!
Take the temperature. How’s your child feeling about the process? It’s easy to become so absorbed in checking all the boxes and forget how your child feels. Start having those heart-to-heart chats!
I asked the founder of MeritMore to contribute to this post and I was super excited when Neeta Vallab responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” Check out her first-hand insights on merit-based aid. Here’s her story.
Two years ago, my daughter started her college admissions process. She had worked hard throughout high school, managing to have both good grades and a good social life. Our family was excited for her — our firstborn was going off to college! She was responsible for taking standardized tests, researching schools for her list, writing essays, getting recommendation letters and submitting applications.
She was responsible for the nitty-gritty parts of the process.
Early on, we learned that we are a “donut-hole” family — we make too much to qualify for need-based aid but not enough to pay sticker price.Even with our 529 plan, the cost of schools on our daughter’s shortlist was staggering. A public four-year college is as much as $22,000 per year.
A private four-year college would set us back a whopping $50,000 or more per year, and that’s just for tuition. We’d have to tack on another $20,000 for housing. It’s no surprise that 69 percent of students took out student loans in 2019.
How were we going to pay for college without taking on outsized loan debt?
Merit aid was our answer.
What is Merit Aid?
Merit aid: Why is it a big deal? Why should parents want their children to get merit-based aid?
The largest pool of “non-loan” and “non-need based” money available is merit aid. Colleges use merit aid scholarships to entice students who can boost the college’s applicant stats, which in turn improves their national rankings. Over $8 billion in merit aid is distributed annually by colleges.
Putting strong merit aid schools on your child’s shortlist is a great strategy for middle-class families to reduce college expenses and decrease the need for taking out loans. You don’t have to pay back merit aid. In most cases, grants are renewable if a certain GPA is maintained. Most importantly, merit aid scholarships are also awarded to students who qualify for need-based financial aid.
How Does Merit-Based Aid Work?
Merit aid scholarships are usually awarded to students in the top 25 percent of a college’s most recently admitted freshman class. These scholarships are mostly extended to students who show academic excellence, but merit aid is also awarded to students who are significantly accomplished in music, art or athletics. There is no separate application process for merit aid and awards are typically announced in your admission letter.
Do All Colleges Offer Merit-Based Aid?
Ivy League schools and other top-tier schools like Stanford and MIT, among others, won’t offer merit aid to their students. Small liberal arts schools are typically the most generous with merit aid awards and state institutions generally have the least merit aid to award. Since many schools offer merit aid, you don’t have to have perfect standardized test scores or straight A’s to get it. Each school will have a different top 25 percent statistic and different criteria for awarding merit grants.
How Do You Find Merit-Based Aid?
You’ll have to go directly to the website of each college you’re interested in to find its common data set. Once you find it, you can apply each school’s top quartile data for your standardized test scores, but not for your GPA.
A merit aid search tool called MeritMore takes your GPA (and standardized test scores if you have them) to generate a list of your strongest merit aid matches (schools where you’re in the top quartile), as well as good schools for you to consider (schools where your quantitatively above average). You can thencompare average merit aid amounts for the schools on the list and, if you need to, restrict your applications to the schools that will most likely give you significant merit aid.
Secret 1: Make sure your child has strong merit aid schools on his or her list.
The best way to get merit aid is to put strong merit aid schools on your list early on in the admissions process. It’s painful for both parent and student to realize that even though you’ve been accepted, you can’t afford to go.
Secret 2: Prioritize financially fit schools over name-brand colleges.
Dream schools can quickly turn into financial nightmares. Make sure your shortlist is populated with generous merit aid colleges, especially if you need funds for more than just out-of-pocket expenses.
Secret 3: Fill out the FAFSA.
Even if you don’t qualify for need-based financial aid, filling out the FAFSA is a must. Many schools need a completed FAFSA for to get full consideration for merit aid. Remember, merit aid can be awarded on top of need-based financial aid.
Secret 4: Stay open-minded.
Many generous merit aid schools may not be on your radar. Be willing to thoughtfully consider strong merit aid schools that meet most, if not all, of your child’s criteria. When you search for merit aid using MeritMore, you could discover your “perfect fit” college in the list of your merit matches.
Secret 5: Compare your merit offers and prepare to negotiate.
Your merit aid award will likely be included in your admission letter. If you’re accepted to multiple schools, compare your offers and don’t hesitate to call your top choice if the merit aid offer is lower than merit aid offers you received from other schools.
Help Your Child Get Merit-Based Aid
After recovering from sticker price shock, we sat down with our daughter and candidly discussed our financial picture relative to the schools she was applying to. We realized that several schools on her list gave very little merit aid. Even if she was accepted, we would be on the hook for paying almost sticker price. Finding and applying to generous merit aid schools was the best strategy for a middle-class family like ours to make college more affordable.
My daughter added two schools that were likely to offer her a significant merit aid award to her shortlist and deleted two schools that historically awarded much smaller amounts. Her final shortlist was balanced both in terms of acceptance probability and financial fitness.
About Neeta Vallab
Neeta Vallab is a digital platform expert and a New York City public school parent. Frustrated with the lack of tools and data available for parents with college-bound students, she founded MeritMore, a free online tool to help parents find merit aid and navigate the admissions process.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) gives you major access to scholarships and aid. You can file the FAFSA starting on October 1 of your child’s senior year. The first thing you need to do is get an FSA ID for both you and your student.
You can choose any of these methods to file a FAFSA form:
Get a print-out of the FAFSA PDF by calling us at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 334-523-2691 (TTY for the deaf or hard of hearing 1-800-730-8913). You can mail it in instead.
The FAFSA qualifies you for not only federal student aid, the FAFSA is used to determine your eligibility for certain state and college and university financial aid. Your FAFSA information is shared with the colleges and/or career schools you list on the FAFSA.
2. File the CSS Profile.
What’s the CSS Profile?
It’s one of the best ways you can get aid for college. The College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile is a private independent survey you fill out through a nonprofit organization, the College Board. Nearly 400 universities rely on the CSS Profile to award your kid scholarships and other non-federal financial aid.
What does your child get from filing the CSS Profile? The application could help your child secure institutional scholarships as well as grants or student loans from the federal government.
What colleges accept the CSS Profile?
Great question. Check out the list of participating colleges and universities. The list includes colleges and universities that use CSS Profile as part of their financial aid processes for some or all of their financial aid applicants. Check schools’ websites or contact the institution’s financial aid office for more information.
Unlike the FAFSA, which is free, It costs $25 for the application and one report to a school. You’ll pay $16 for each additional report.
The CSS Profile gathers information about your family’s annual income as well as medical expenses and anything else that could affect your ability to pay for college — it takes a deeper dive into families’ finances than the FAFSA.
Note: Divorced parents must complete the CSS profile separately.
3. Explore your options for merit aid.
You’ll run into a lot of myths about aid. Let’s take a machete to these harmful myths:
My kid has to be a genius to get money from a college or university.
Students must be incredible athletes to receive money.
It takes an exhaustive search of scholarships don’t have to look any further than the college or university your child is looking into.
Did you know that there’s unlimited merit aid from schools around the country? Merit-based aid is aid not based on financial need. Instead, it’s based on items like grade point average, test scores and specific talents.
Let’s look at one school for an example. I’m going to adopt my cousin’s alma mater, St. Olaf, for a second, and show you the merit-based scholarships available there:
The Buntrock Scholarship (a renewable award of $25,000 per year) recognizes students with outstanding academic accomplishment and exemplary achievement across many facets of the high school experience.
The Presidential Scholarship (a renewable award of $23,000 per year) recognizes salutary academic achievement.
The Dean’s Scholarship (a renewable award of $21,000 per year) recognizes a strong and sustained academic achievement.
The Faculty Scholarship (a renewable award of $19,000 per year) recognizes a balanced record of consistent academic achievement.
The St. Olaf Scholarship (a renewable award of $17,000 per year) recognizes academic achievement.
What would your child have to do to get these scholarships? Fill out the Common Application and include test scores, high school transcripts and letters of recommendation.
As you can imagine, the highest scholarship amounts get offered to top students, but the lower-tier GPA and scores still get merit scholarships. As you can see, the “lower” tier totals $17,000 per year for four years.
That’s still a whopping $68,000 over four years for the lower-tier scholarships.
My point? Find out what your child can get for merit-based aid. Merit-based aid is also awarded to students who qualify for need-based financial aid.
4. Apply for outside scholarships.
Outside scholarships include private scholarships and cash awards. Encourage your child to go for those $100 scholarships — they add up.
Ask area high schools for graduation programs dating back up to four years ago. You can find the names of scholarships, Google them and ta-dah! Your kid’s got an abundance of choices.
Contact various civic organizations. Is your next-door neighbor a Kiwanis member? Your co-worker’s husband on the zoo board?
Talk to the company you work for. What types of scholarships does your company offer? Your partner’s? Your sister’s?
Scour emails from the guidance office. Gone are the days when a printed-out list of scholarships came from the guidance office. Unfortunately, it’s much more fleeting than that. Your child could see it on an email — then, blip — it’s gone. Ask for an email copy of these announcements, if possible.
Check social media. Social media is a great place to search for scholarships. You might join any number of Facebook groups or other social media groups that post scholarships. You can do a simple search and find scholarship groups.
Look at scholarship search engines. (I know, groan. When I was an admission counselor and offered this idea to parents, they always groaned, “There’s so many, they’re all competitive, they’re all national scholarships open to thousands of kids.”)
Don’t hastily dismiss! I suggest Googling “scholarships for writers,” for example. Use keywords to your advantage! And if your child doesn’t look like a match for a specific scholarship, reach out to the scholarship committee and ask if your child can apply anyway. Maybe he’s just missing one tiny requirement.
Also, encourage your child to continue to apply for outside scholarships throughout college. You can find so many scholarships even while your student’s knee-deep in scholarships.
Check out the Scholarship System’s free webinar. It details absolutely everything you need to know about how to track down scholarships — and win them. Jocelyn of the Scholarship System totally impresses me because she’s turned getting scholarships into a complete system. She knows how to streamline the process and get rid of waste completely. She’s the bomb!
5. Ask department heads about scholarships.
Yes! Don’t shy away from asking academic departments at schools about scholarships. Here’s how this can work:
“Dr. Fletcher, you’ve been a biology professor here at X College since 1975. You’ve got to know about some excellent scholarships in your department.”
“Why, as a matter of fact, we have three options for incoming freshmen.”
“One that would apply to my child’s deepening interest in European water voles?”
“Yes! How marvelous is this? My graduate research dabbled in voles.”
“What can we do to apply?”
“Here’s what you need to do…”
So, how can you do this if you’re not able to meet with professors in person?
Email is splendid. Communicate with these people! Build relationships! Do your best to communicate with these influential individuals ahead of time so you start to build relationships.
6. Pay for it on your own.
Remember how I mentioned that paying for college is a giant jigsaw puzzle? It’s also a subtraction problem.
Take the total cost and subtract small bits at a time to get your out-of-pocket cost at the end. It could look like this. (Note: these numbers are completely made up and geared more toward private college costs):
Total cost: $60,000
Merit-based Scholarships: $20,000
Federal subsidized loan: $3,500
Federal unsubsidized loan: $2,000
Total out-of-pocket cost: $30,500
Outside scholarships: $10,000
New out-of-pocket cost: $20,500
See how we subtracted, subtracted, subtracted from that total cost to arrive at an out-of-pocket cost?
Check out the next part to see how you can further take that $20,500 and break it down.
7. Use a tuition payment plan.
Many people underestimate a tuition payment plan — or don’t know about it in the first place. You pay for college using your own money, but break it up into monthly payments.
Let’s take that $20,500 from above and break it into a 10-month payment plan.
Breaking it into a 10-month payment plan means you’ll pay $2,050 per month.
Check out the beauty of the next section!
8. Get creative.
Next, how can you get creative to pay for that $2,050 per month? Can you ask other people to pitch in — both sets of grandparents, your child (think work-study, summer earnings) and maybe an aunt or uncle want to help.
See, what usually happens is most people fixate on the $20,050 and can’t get beyond it. (Trust me, I saw it happen all the time in the admission office.)
Or, figure out what one person will pay you to do for $10. Then, do that 10 more times.
Am I advocating for a side hustle? Maybe! But this really could be an idea for more than a side hustle. It could be your full-time job, if that’s your passion. Save for college by making more money (it’s how I save for my own kids’ 529 plans). Ask yourself this question: What would someone pay you $10 to do?
What do you do better than everyone else? Cook fried chicken? Babysit? Walk chihuahuas? Write goofy ad copy?
Do that one thing for that person, then do it 10 more times. Then do it again 10 more times. Maybe you’ll need to get help from others to help you! To be honest, it doesn’t matter what it is as long as it generates recurring income.
In general, it’s a simple way to think about how you could leverage your passions and talents to save for college. Then stuff the money you make into an ESA, 529 or custodial account.
Instead, take the break-it-down approach!
9. Have your child take out loans.
Okay, this may not be what you had in mind when you Googled “ways to get college paid for”… but you know what? It’s still a way to pay for college.
Loans have their place, and while you probably don’t want your child to take out loans for the full cost of his entire four (or more!) years of college, you can still strategize to figure out how loans fit into the jigsaw puzzle of the full financial aid picture.
In other words, if your child must take out loans, do it as conservatively as possible, in this order:
Take out federal loans.
Round out as much as you can with your own money.
Take out private loans as necessary.
10. Use life insurance.
This is a slightly more morbid way to handle paying for college because you and your spouse must die in order to get it. I know. I hesitated to stick this in here but today is the second anniversary of my father-in-law’s death and I decided to mention it.
If his kids had been in college when he died, my mother-in-law could have relied on his life insurance to pay for college.
I sincerely believed that during COVID-19, I’d avoid the crowds and opt for a no-exam life insurance policy. You can get a quote from Bestow and get coverage from $50,000 to $1,000,000. Choose from 10- and 20-year terms built to suit your needs.
The busy-as-a-squirrel retirement saver in me squeaks just a little bit when I suggest this option. It kind of feels like trying to say something while having my finger smashed in a drawer.
Because I really, really believe you must take care of your own retirement first before you worry about paying for college.
However, there’s no denying it: You can use your Roth IRA for both retirement and college tuition. You won’t pay withdrawal penalties with IRAs, including Roth IRAs, if the funds are used for qualified educational expenses — tuition, fees, books and room and board.
For most folks who are sending their kids off to college, only the contribution portions of their Roth IRA balances can be withdrawn tax-free. (Any earnings in the account will be taxable for those people under 59, as well as for those over 59½ who haven’t held the Roth for at least five years.)
But Roth IRAs enjoy a somewhat unique tax treatment. Withdrawals are treated as a “return of contribution” first and as earnings second.
Uh… English, please.
No problem. So, what this means is that if you’ve been contributing $4,000 per year for the past five years, you can withdraw $20,000 tax-free (as long as you use the money for tuition, fees, room, board, etc.)
What happens if your withdrawals exceed your total contributions?
They’ll be taxable for those under age 59½.
Just remember, always take care of yourself first. You can always borrow for college but you can’t borrow for retirement. If you’re a little thin on the retirement funds, be a busy squirrel and keep contributing to your Roth IRA!
Ways to Get College Paid for in Action
Don’t limit yourself or your child. So much goes into the process of learning how to pay for college.
Also — one more thing. Don’t stop figuring it out. Ever. This isn’t a process you quit as soon as your child is safely secured in his or her residence hall room on the first day of college. Keep looking for scholarships, keep side hustling, keep finding ways to make college work.
That’s the amount of time it takes to fill out the FAFSA. Just 55 minutes.
Only 55 minutes. You can do anything for 55 minutes. If you can work out for an hour (and put yourself through that torture daily — (let me tell you how much I dislike exercise!) you can file the FAFSA.
2. Do something enjoyable while you file.
Quick — what can you do while you file? Right off the top of my head:
Watch “Grey’s Anatomy” episodes (gosh, I love that show). Or, obviously, another show you find fun to watch.
Bake something that takes an hour (bread, a pie, etc.) and it’ll be doubly rewarding at the end of 55 minutes.
Self-pamper — glass of wine, mud mask, pedicure, etc. Might as well be relaxed as you sift through your 2019 tax information.
Relax in a lounge chair outside (as long as your papers won’t blow away… I swear, it’s like we live on the edge of a cliff on the edge of a violent ocean or on the top of a mountain, it’s so windy here. I’d never be able to work outside). If you can do it without chasing papers across your backyard, enjoy!
Go somewhere else. If you find it relaxing to go to the library or a coffee shop and remove yourself completely from the chaos at home, go for it.
Eat something enjoyable. Get takeout. A noodle bowl. A container of brownie cookie dough chocolate chip ice cream (that’s the kind my husband brought home the other night).
Obviously, you can’t summit one of Colorado’s fourteeners while you file the FAFSA, but why not watch your favorite movie? Slurp a mudslide?
Make it fun!
3. Get your partner or spouse on board. Or involve your child.
Okayyy, so this might not be the most relaxing idea ever. But at least you’ll have some company while you file, even if your go-to person isn’t that much help. (I keep thinking about all the moms and dads who do the FAFSA all by themselves every year. So sad!)
Make it a FAFSA date night! (LOL!)
4. Get some help.
Don’t even worry about trying to figure it out yourself. If you’ve never done it before, you can find someone at your state planning agency who can help you. (For example, if you live in Nebraska, you can have EducationQuest help you.) These agencies provide programs, tools and resources to help students and parents with all aspects of planning and preparing for the academic, social and financial aspects of life after high school.
5. Think past the gargantuan task of filing the FAFSA.
Focus on the first thing you must do first — turning on the computer, then going to the website and log in. When you start to think about the FAFSA as a whole, that’s when you might feel like you’re choking or not getting enough air.
6. Watch videos to get you geared up.
EducationQuest offers some great videos to show you how to file the FAFSA. They take you step by step through each FAFSA section. Watching them helps you realize the FAFSA is easy-peasy, pumpkin squeezy (something my seven-year-old daughter says).
After you watch the videos, just make sure you actually do the FAFSA next.
7. Think of all the scholarships and other financial aid your child will get.
Is that not motivation enough? Filing the FAFSA is the way to get the most federal money you possibly can.
And if that isn’t enough, check out the Scholarship System’s list of scholarships. It’s an excellent, comprehensive list, and the Scholarship System even has a fantastic list of scholarship websites to boot!
8. Zoom with a friend and do it together.
Chances are, you’ve got a friend who also has a child going off to college. Set up two screens — Zoom on one, FAFSA on the other. Chat happily away as you fill out the FASFA, line by line. Warning: You’ll have so much fun you won’t get done in 55 minutes.
9. Get prepared.
There’s nothing worse than scrambling for documents when you’re trying to fill something out. You’ll need a few things before you get started, including your:
FSA ID: See why it’s a major bonus to get the FSA ID ahead of time so you don’t have to wait when you’re ready to file?
Social Security numbers: You’ll need both your student’s and your own Social Security number to fill out the FAFSA form.
Driver’s license number: Don’t worry about this step if you don’t have a driver’s license number.
2019 tax records: You always work two years backward on the FAFSA. On the 2021–22 FAFSA form, you report your 2019 income information.
Untaxed income records: Gather information about child support, interest income, veterans’ non-education benefits and more. Again, you’ll need your 2019 tax information.
Assets: Gather information about your money — savings and checking account balances, stocks, bonds, secondary real estate and more.
List of schools your child may attend: Add any college (you can list up to 10!) your child is considering, even if your child hasn’t applied for it yet. The FAFSA form will automatically send your FAFSA results electronically to those schools.
10: You can speed it up! (Whew!)
Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) to make the FAFSA a breeze. The DRT allows you to securely transfer original IRS tax return information using the FAFSA’s easy-to-use prompts.
Note: Not everyone is eligible to use the IRS DRT. Furthermore, the IRS DRT does not input all the financial information required on the FAFSA form. Make sure you have your 2019 tax return and 2019 IRS W-2 available as a backup.
How Else Can You Make it More Fun?
Again, do you need to fill out the FAFSA?
There’s no reason it has to be un-fun. Just do it, get it over with, submit it to those schools.
Maybe you’ll come out of the process smelling like lavender with perfectly manicured nails. Or with messy hair — because you file the FAFSA on the beach.
Oooh, friends, the FAFSA opens October 1. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), used to calculate something called the expected family contribution (EFC), measures a family’s financial strength and eligibility for financial aid.
Once, Mr. Donelson, my student Chris’ dad, swaggered into my office and said, “We don’t file the FAFSA. I make too much money.”
Not one to meekly say, “Okay, it’s your choice,” I took a wild gamble, knowing full well my boss would have a coronary. I said, “Sir, how close are you to retirement?” (It was a gamble because I wasn’t sure if he was actually close to retirement or not.)
“A year, tops.” (Whew.)
“How many kids do you have in college right now?” (I already knew that answer.)
“After Chris, we’ll have four in college all at the same time,” he said proudly.
“Did you know the FAFSA takes those factors, like time to retirement and kids in college, into consideration?” I asked politely.
“Hmmm,” he responded.
He filed the FAFSA and I’m happy to tell you that his son received federal aid, including work-study. He worked in our admission office as a tour guide and was a total rock star.
Why is the FAFSA important? I’m so glad you asked.
Actually, these secrets — not so hidden. But you won’t know unless you file. Everyone should file the FAFSA! Even if you can fill an Olympic-sized pool with all of your $100 bills, you should file the FAFSA. As I shared with Mr. Donelson, there’s more that goes into the expected family contribution, or EFC, than just parent income.
Your family’s taxed and untaxed income, assets and benefits (such as unemployment or Social Security) chips into the formula. Also rolled into it: Family size and the number of family members who will attend college or career school during the year.
2. Your child can qualify for federal aid.
Your child will not get federal aid if you don’t file the FAFSA. Completing this form is the only way to receive state and federal financial aid.
The U.S. Department of Education uses the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for federal student aid. This includes low-cost loans, grants and work-study.
3. You might have to do it for your child to qualify for other aid.
Put federal student aid to the side for a sec. The FAFSA may also determine your student’s eligibility for other forms of financial aid through the state, the college and, sometimes, private scholarships.
I mentioned this already but I think it deserves a second mention. Federal work-study is a way you can earn money while your child works a part-time on-campus job. (You may be able to get off-campus jobs as well.) Not every school participates in the Federal Work-Study Program, so ask whether colleges your child wants to attend participate.
Colleges offer a specific amount of funds to each eligible student. Students receive money based on the hours they work, very similar to other hourly jobs.
5. You might have to do it anyway.
Depending on where your child goes to school, completing the FAFSA is a prerequisite for high school graduation. Check with your student’s guidance counselor for more information.
6. Most students qualify for federal loans.
Never, ever, ever, ever EVER take out private student loans before federal loans. Private loans have high interest rates and lack the consumer protections that federal student loans include.
The Institute for College Access and Success reports that 47 percent of private loan borrowers could have used more affordable federal loans. By completing the FAFSA form, you can make sure your student takes advantage of the best student loan options.
7. You don’t have to accept all aid.
Completing the FAFSA does not obligate your child to accept student loans or any other form of financial aid. So, for example, let’s say your child gets:
Federal student loans
You and your child can decide you want the scholarships and grants (free money) but don’t want the federal student loans (must be repaid).
Many families think they have to take everything the student gets awarded — but that’s just not true!
8. Your child may leave money on the table.
Take a wild guess at the percentage of high school graduates who completed the FAFSA in 2014.
Only 44 percent.
All that money — unused! It means billions of dollars left on the table.
9. Situations change.
What happens if you experience a change in income? You’ll be glad you filed.
Situations change. Unfortunately, jobs get lost, people pass away, etc. Your financial situations can change. Remember, you can always appeal for more aid every year.
Just because your student doesn’t receive financial aid one year doesn’t mean that he or she can’t get it another year.
10. It’s free.
Note the “Free” in “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” It costs exactly no money to apply, and more importantly, you don’t have to pay anything to find out whether your child is eligible for federal aid.
11. It’s easy.
It’s no longer the behemoth it once was. (I remember my dad spending hours hunched over the paper version when I was in college.) Now, it takes just 55 minutes to fill it out. That’s less than the time it takes to order and eat a pizza. That’s less than an entire Netflix episode.
12. You can gather just a few materials to fill it out.
What materials should I gather in advance before starting the FAFSA?
Social Security Number for both parents and students.
Both parents and students need this information for the FAFSA form.
Driver’s license number (if you have one).
Your 2019 tax records for the 2021–22 FAFSA form. You report your 2019 income information on this year’s form.
Records of untaxed income, such as child support, interest income, and veterans’ non-education benefits.
Your assets (money) from savings and checking account balances, investments and real estate, though you don’t include your primary residence.
List of the school(s) on your child’s list. Add any college your child’s considering, even if you haven’t applied or been accepted yet. You can list up to 10 schools at a time on the FAFSA.
13. It (could) ensure your child goes to college.
Ninety percent of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA proceed directly to college, versus only 55 percent who don’t complete the FAFSA, according to the National College Access Network (NCAN).
14. You can fill it out early — then relax.
Fill it out as soon as possible! Even if you don’t know which school you plan to attend. You can always add various schools’ FAFSA code to your already-filled out FAFSA as the year progresses. So, let’s say you file the FAFSA on October 1. You add three schools that you want the FAFSA to be sent to, then you become interested in another school in November. You can log back in and have it sent to that school as well.
It’s also okay to add a school to the FAFSA that you decide later on that you won’t apply for.
15. It helps schools that also require the CSS profile to understand your full financial picture.
What’s the diff between the FAFSA and CSS Profile? The FAFSA awards families with federal grants, scholarships and student loans, while the CSS helps schools award non-federal institutional aid.
Filling out the CSS Profile does not take the place of the FAFSA. Rather, it is an additional application for non-federal financial aid.
Schools that require the CSS typically meet 90 to 100 percent of family need and package their financial aid with institutional grant money.
The CSS has some significant differences from the FAFSA, in particular the way it calculates certain assets.
The FAFSA considers cash gifts as a part of parents’ total assets.
FAFSA looks strictly at numbers such as income and family size, so families must discuss personal situations and hardships directly with schools.
The CSS counts cash gifts as parental income, which decreases a dependent student’s eligibility for aid.
The CSS takes a closer look at family finances than the FAFSA does.
The CSS evaluates a family’s medical bills and school costs for younger children, among other factors, to determine a family’s expected contribution.
For some students, this could mean more financial aid opportunities are available through the CSS.
You Want the Best Shot Possible
The FAFSA is important, even if you’re not sure what will come of it. File it anyway. You don’t want to be wondering “what could have been.”
The FAFSA gives your child the best possible chance of receiving federal aid. Don’t leave money on the table. Like Mr. Donelson, it might make you wonder why you ever doubted it in the first place.
Your high schooler’s busier than you. (Okay, maybe not.) But between cross country practice, homework (ugh — how hard is trig?!) and making sure those gym shorts smell Snuggle-fresh, who has time for anything else?
Even though your kiddo’s busy, it’s still important to put that math homework to good use because it could affect your child for the rest of his life.
Check this out.
When Caroline was 14 years old, she and her dad decided to invest $2,000 every year for five years. Call it a little experiment, if you will. Here’s what it looked like:
Age 14: $2,000
Age 15: $2,000
Age 16: $2,000
Age 17: $2,000
Age 18: $2,000
Caroline and her dad invested no more money than that initial $10,000.
Fast forward 51 years. How much money did Caroline have after 10 percent annual return, at age 64?
How’s that for some incredible math? (Skip solving for x.)
Investing is so important — but that’s not all your child should spend time learning. Unfortunately, high schools and colleges just don’t teach basic financial literacy.
It changes lives when they learn this stuff early:
Your kids show up equipped to handle debt. The less debt a child has over his lifetime, the more he’ll be able to do the things he wants to do, such as buy a home, purchase the things he wants (not on credit), retire and more.
It’s fun. When you see money compound, your eyes fall out of your head. It’s more fun than living paycheck to paycheck, that’s for sure.
It’s habitual. Get it together early on and those good money habits will follow your child the rest of his life. Encourage him to put 10 percent of his income into a retirement account and increase that account a little bit at a time. Your child will be in good shape if she keeps it up till retirement!
It makes him a lifelong money learner. Books about money these days are so dang good. And so inspiring! Check out Why Didn’t They Teach Me This in School?. He might start stuffing it into his trig book anddevouring it during class.
Money Topics Your Child Won’t Learn in School
Here’s what your child needs to learn about money management from you, through books and other methods.
Budgeting and Other Fun Stuff
Budgeting 101 is typically not an essential high school class, so check out the basic budgeting steps your child should know. Why not let him in on all your expenses and bills so he sees what you do?
Add up expenses like rent, utilities, internet, groceries, clothes, household supplies — you know, those fun adult things you get to tackle each month.
Add up income. How much money do you make from all income sources?
Subtract expenses from income.
Understand the difference between “needs” and “wants.” Start applying this now. “Needs” should only include necessary items, like rent, utilities, groceries and more. “Wants” include coffee runs, entertainment and expensive jeans. A really crucial lesson for kids to understand!
Sign up for automatic bill pay. Incurring extra fees or interest when you fail to pay your bills on time is a real bummer — and it can ding your credit. Show your child how you pay for everything on time.
Make it fun! Your child can tap into lots of budgeting apps, like YNAB and Mint.
Encourage your child to learn about college costs, including a few keywords:
Tuition: The cost of taking classes at a college
Room: On-campus housing
Board: Meals on campus
Activity fee: Fee to go to events on campus
Total cost: The sticker price — most students won’t pay this amount!
Let Quatromoney help you (and your child) understand college costs. Quatromoney helps you assess how savings and cash can help your child reduce the need for loans. The company helps your child plan for four years, not just the first year of college.
Student loans seem super complicated, right? They are. For now, let’s reduce student loans into just a few quick facts:
You pay interest when you borrow. Interest is the amount your child pays (a percentage of a loan) to borrow money. In other words, when your child borrows money for student loans, it costs more money to pay them back. The longer your child takes to pay them back, the more he owes. (Does your child understand this stuff?)
Take federal loans first and private loans as a last resort. (Let’s go over this more in a second.)
Get to know the college’s financial aid office. Financial aid officers can help your child navigate everything. Get to know the financial aid personnel at your child’s college. You’ll be happier for it.
Now, onto the basics of federal and private student loans.
Federal Student Loans
The U.S. Department of Education offers Direct Unsubsidized and Subsidized loans and Direct PLUS loans, including Grad PLUS loans for graduate and professional students and Parent PLUS loans for parents of undergraduate students.
What to know: Federal student loans trump private student loans for several reasons:
No credit checks are involved (although Direct PLUS loans do require a credit check).
Your child might qualify for an income-based repayment plan once he graduates, which means it depends on how much money your child makes once he graduates from college.
They’re most often forgiven, which means your child may not have to repay. This depends on which career your child chooses after graduation.
Federal student loan interest rates are lower compared to private loans.
Private Student Loans
Private student loans fill in the need gap after your child exhausts all scholarship, grant, savings and federal student loan options.
What to know: Private loans often require a co-signer. This person is commonly you or another relative. A co-signer needs a good credit score and needs to show proof of income.
Finally, remember that co-signers are just as responsible for paying back loans. Have a conversation with your child about risk and how your child plans to repay private loans before your child agrees to co-sign.
Starting a Retirement Fund — Now! Yes, Now!
Let’s go back to that fun math problem we did at the very beginning of this article. It took Caroline 51 years to earn a million dollars. Sixty-five years old might feel like it’s a lifetime away.
I’ll repeat what Grandma told your child a million times: “You’ll be my age before you know it, Sonny!”
She’s right — you know that now! (How do the years slip by?)
Do you wish you’d saved $2,000 for five years starting at age 14? I’m sure you do. Hopefully that example is enough of a motivation. Hopefully it propels your kid to scrape up the money from every birthday he’s ever had and invest it.
What to know: If your child’s earned income, she can contribute to a Roth IRA. This could include money earned from a W-2 job or even from self-employment gigs like dog-sitting.
Help Your Child with Financial Literacy
It’s easy for a high schooler to think, “I’ve got plenty of time to figure this stuff out!”
It’s easy to say, “Retirement’s like, 100 years away.”
It’s not! Help your child with this knowledge and let her peer over your shoulder when you’re doing things like paying bills online. Involve your child — they’re great lessons for the future.
Your parents may be in a perfect position to help for college — they may have plenty of money saved up and have plenty of ideas! But first… tamp down the excitement! College funds for grandchildren (and alternative options!) can go lots of directions.
1: Start a conversation.
The first step: Always start with a family conversation.
I remember working with this family in admission, the Larsons, who wanted their son to pitch in for some college costs. However, the grandparents wanted to pay the whole bill! (Tempers ran high, especially when the grandparents went behind the Larsons’ back and paid for a whole year of college up front.)
Your parents can tap into a number of strategies. Throughout these conversations, consider how college savings might impact the whole family:
Maybe you want your child to shoulder some of the cost so he takes college more seriously.
You want to cover the majority of the costs with your own money. (“My kid, my responsibility.”)
You want to make sure your parents keep their own needs at the helm. Maybe they may live on a fixed income in retirement and shouldn’t pay for college.
Certain savings vehicles might affect the financial aid your child receives.
2: Discuss specific vehicles.
Your parents may have it in their head exactly how they want to help your child pay for college. But is it the best option for your family? Here are some great topics to launch your conversations.
Talk About 529 Plans
What’s a 529 plan? Many people herald them as the grandpappy of all college savings plans. Here’s why: Your parents won’t pay taxes on earnings and withdrawals as long as your child uses them for qualified education expenses. (Your parents can also save $10,000 of tuition expenses for elementary, middle, or high school education and to repay qualified student loans and expenses for apprenticeship programs.)
Your child can use 529 savings at accredited institutions for:
Other educational expenses
Appeal factor: 529 plans must be used for educational purposes and nothing else. For estate tax purposes: The money is no longer considered part of the parents’ or grandparents’ estate.
Your parents might wonder whether to use these options if your child is in high school. They sure can! For example, they can put in five years of annual gifts — up to $15,000 (up to $75,000 per person, per beneficiary) at once without messing with gift tax or scraping away at the lifetime gift tax exclusion.
Consider UGMAs or UTMAs
Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA) or Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) accounts, also called custodial accounts, let the grandchild take control of assets in the account as soon as they reach a specified age. What age? That depends on your state laws.
The custodian (who can be anyone — it doesn’t have to be your parents) controls the account until your child reaches (usually) 18 or 21. After that, he can spend the money on whatever he wants, even a brand-new Corvette. You may want to have a conversation with your parents about skipping this option if your kid’s liable to say, “I’m rich, I’m rich! Never mind going to college, let’s all go to the south of France!” And then he rents a house on the beach for his friend for a month and the money’s gone.
Another issue: You can’t transfer UGMAs or UTMAs to another beneficiary. For example, let’s say it becomes super apparent that your child will goof off with the money. Your parents can’t switch and give money to a more studious sibling.
Also — talk to your parents about the possibility that your child will get less financial aid if your parents opt for a UGMA or UTMA because they count as student assets and factor in at 20 percent, more than the 2.6 percent to 5.6 percent for parent assets. (Yikes!)
Warn them that they won’t see as many tax benefits. The interest, dividends and earnings is the child’s income and taxed at the child’s tax rate once the child reaches age 18. The first $1,100 is untaxed if the child is under 18 and the next $1,100 is taxed at the child’s rate. Anything over $2,100 is taxed at the grandparent’s rate. Visit IRS.gov for more information.
Appeal factor: You can contribute virtually any type of asset toward both UGMAs and UTMAs. You can even contribute real estate to an UTMA. Your path is much less limited and your parents may like the larger number of investment options in a custodial account compared to a 529 plan.
Talk about Coverdell ESAs
A Coverdell education savings account (Coverdell ESA) is a trust or custodial account for paying qualified education expenses. You can pay qualified higher education expenses (and elementary and secondary education expenses) with a Coverdell ESA. Note: The designated beneficiary must be under the age of 18 or be a special needs beneficiary.
Your parents can contribute to a Coverdell ESA with cash but they’re not deductible. The downside is that the total contribution to all accounts on behalf of a beneficiary in any year can’t exceed $2,000 with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) up to $190,000. The amount reduces incrementally for MAGI between $190,000 and $220,000. If your parents’ incomes rise above $220,000, they’re ineligible to contribute to a Coverdell ESA.
Whew, that was kind of boring. Sorry! Let’s up the excitement in the appeal factor section.
Appeal factor: Tax-free withdrawals! More investment flexibility than 529s! No withdrawal cap like the 529’s $10,000 tax-free withdrawal cap for qualified expenses to an elementary or secondary public, private or religious school! Also, your parents can transfer money from one grandchild to another.
3: What if they prefer to pay the bill directly? Talk through it.
“We’re not interested in all that,” your parents may say, with a wave of a hand. “Taxes, shmaxes.”
You may reply (with a hint of exasperation in your voice), “But a savings vehicle makes the most sense, tax-wise!”
Paying directly is not considered a gift. Your parents could still use their annual gift exclusion to give up to $15,000 to one grandchild. However, direct tuition payments do affect financial aid. The other downside is that money doesn’t grow tax-free in an account — your child doesn’t have interest working in his favor.
4: Discuss a tuition payment plan.
The tuition payment plan is one of the secrets of breaking up college payments into tinier chunks. It simply means you pay for an item in fixed amounts at specified intervals — you make small payments over time. A tuition installment plan means you can reduce a remaining balance by splitting it up into a specified number of months. You’ll pay that amount over a typical nine- to 12-month period.
Most colleges’ installment plans cover only the direct costs billed by and paid to the college, which includes:
Room and board (only applicable if your child lives on campus)
Books, supplies, equipment and transportation to and from school are not covered.
A tuition payment plan does not include things like transportation, school supplies and other outside expenses.
Talk about a specific monthly amount they want to help with — and make sure you agree.
5: Discuss money they’ve already ferreted away.
Do your parents have money ripe for plucking in traditional and/or Roth IRA accounts? Why not use it to pay for their grandchild’s college education — particularly if they’ll have plenty of money left in it for themselves?
As long as your parents are 59½ and older, they can withdraw money from a traditional IRA to pay for college without paying a 10 percent penalty on distributions. Traditional IRA owners do pay federal income tax on the amount withdrawn.
If your parents are under 59½, it’s better to take money from a Roth IRA. Your parents won’t suffer a 10 percent penalty on distributions used for qualified education expenses as long as the account as long as they’ve had the account for five years.
A Sweet Gesture
Even when you disagree on the vehicle to pay for it (or, like the Larsons’ parents, paid for the whole thing without permission) you’ve got to recognize the effort your parents are putting in.
The best thing you can do is talk as a family to discover which option fits your child best.
This year, college application season feels like you’re a sloth. You finally move three inches, then get sizzled on a power line.
You should see the questions on college Facebook groups I belong to.
One parent just posted, “My daughter is a senior and her Sept ACT got cancelled again. What can we do to get a test scheduled. The dates r blocked till Dec. any info would be appreciated.”
Another one posted, “So do kids have to take the SAT or ACT and whcih one. I’m confused.”
I do love social media spelling and grammar — because you know what it means? You’re BUSY. You don’t have time for punctuation! Don’t waste another second monkeying around figuring out how to get this school year started. Get the College Money Tips Start of School Checklist for the College Searchnow. You need this checklist, if not just to keep your sanity!
Now, let’s get to our burning topic: ACT and SAT and all the questions.
College website says: “Standardized tests are optional.”
You say, “Uhmmmm… Is that a trick question?”
First of all, let’s talk about these tests. Colleges use both the ACT and SAT, or standardized tests, for admission purposes and to determine which students receive merit-based scholarships.
Most colleges accept both the SAT and the ACT. (Learn more: What Does ACT Stand For? And What Does SAT Stand For?) Typically, colleges have no preference for which test your child takes, despite persistent rumors that one is “better” than the other.
Just when you think you have it all figured out — ZZZZZZszzzt. (That’s the sound of crisping sloth.)
The question just got more complicated because now colleges have introduced test optional, test flexible and test blind.
Test Optional, Flexible and Blind: Versions of the Same Thing?
I marvel at the way college admission offices invent terms to addle our brains. (Consider how many types of admission exist in this world.)
What the. Heck. is Test Optional?
Your child gets a choice about whether to send in SAT or ACT scores.
As if things couldn’t get murkier.
It’s like they’re saying, “Weeeelll, you can send in SAT scores — if you think you want to.”
If this is your response: “Seriously. Just tell us what to do. If we need to, we’ll take the test. We’ll wear eight masks! We’ll stand in line for days! Just tell us what to do — I don’t want to hear that it’s optional.” I completely understand.
But that’s really the deal with test optional. You and your child decide whether to submit test scores with the application. Most test-optional schools consider SAT and ACT scores if they are submitted, with a large caveat. They also consider:
They look at these just as (or more) closely than your test scores.
The benefit: Test optional gives your child a chance to purposefully craft his or her candidacy. It means your child can offer other ways to present herself in the best way possible. Maybe your Scorsese-obsessed child submits a video essay. Maybe your daughter can craft her essay around the novel she started two years ago.
You and your child get more control over what your child presents to those steely-eyed admission officers!
What’s Test Flexible?
So, test flexible. This is my favorite, because it looks like it’s more relaxed, but you still have to take a test!
A test-flexible policy requires your child to send test scores but students submit other test scores in place of the SAT or ACT. A few examples:
SAT Subject Test
International Baccalaureate exam
Advanced Placement test
Now… Test Blind? (Are They Kidding?)
A handful of colleges allow test blind admission. I know, I know. The fun never stops.
Colleges with test-blind admission policies do not want you to send test scores at all.
Sounds like the most straightforward option of all of them, doesn’t it?
The college’s website might sound something like this, from Northern Illinois University: “Test-blind means that we will not review standardized test scores (SAT or ACT) for general admission and merit scholarship consideration starting with applicants for the fall of 2021.”
But then NIU’s site goes on to say, “We’ll look at your high school GPA instead. Research shows that GPA is a better indicator of success in college. You may need to provide your ACT or SAT score for certain other scholarships. You’ll also need to provide it if you’re applying to the nursing program, a limited admission program.”
Read everything because college policies vary!
How Do Students Get Admitted Without SAT or ACT Scores?
How do students get admitted without SAT or ACT scores?
It’s important to remember that even before the pandemic, most U.S. colleges admitted two-thirds or more of students who apply. And don’t forget that most public four-year and community colleges are open access. This means no exams required!
I decided to catch up with one test-optional college to find out what test optional means at that institution. Terri Crumley, director of admissions at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), says, “At UNI, students not submitting a test score (test-optional) will be reviewed using holistic review. The review will include factors such as the student’s high school GPA and core course selection.”
How Are Scholarships Dished Out Without ACT/SAT Scores?
How does no ACT or SAT translate to scholarships?
“We are offering initial scholarships based on the GPA. We also have some scholarships that will require an ACT/SAT score or an additional application. Need-based scholarships will also be available,” says Crumley.
However, it’s extremely important to check with the institutions your child’s interested in to determine how each college offers scholarships, particularly scholarships where you might need to audition and more.
How to Decide Whether to Take the ACT or SAT
Now your child must decide whether to take the SAT or ACT. Take these steps to figure it out.
Step 1: Look carefully at colleges’ qualifications.
Check online first. You may quickly figure out that all schools you apply to are kind of in the same pool — all test optional or all test flexible.
Do they require class rank, weighted and unweighted GPA? Make sure you look for all the details and all the requirements.
“Most high schools are not using class rank anymore. If a high school offers both a weighted and unweighted GPA, students should include both,” says Crumley.
Step 2: Reach out to schools your child’s interested in.
Every school is different. I can’t stress this enough. Let’s say your child’s grades aren’t stellar. The ACT may boost your child’s qualifications, so he might want to take the SAT or ACT.
You must get on the phone with admission counselors and find out what they recommend. Share your particular situation.
Ask questions like this:
Will taking the ACT or SAT greatly enhance my child’s chances of getting admitted?
What other things can we do to increase my child’s chances of getting in?
Should we include letters of recommendation or additional personal statements? What additional materials do you need? Academic work? Scientific research?
What are your exact policies? Do these policies depend on my child’s potential major?
Step 3: Make sure your child gets a seat.
Have you decided it’s in your child’s best interest to take the ACT or SAT?
It might be hard to get a seat. For example, the ACT has done its best to place the class of 2021 seniors in seats at sites that are currently open for the fall. Some of these students could not be automatically registered for fall test dates. However, ACT has tried to secure additional space for students.
Consider where you might be able to go beyond your area to take the test or arrange for alternate test dates.
Make a Decision
By the way, if it seems as if I’m making light of admission policies and processes, it’s simply to get you to smile. In no way do I mean to make light of the situation we’re in.
Colleges continue to exhibit flexibility and adjust requirements for students. For those with younger students: Nobody really knows how the situation will change.
The process of learning about the SAT and ACT might seem sloth-like. No matter what, though, ACT cancellations should not put your child at a disadvantage.